By: Darrell W. Butler
ACE, NFPT, ISCA Certified Personal Trainer
No matter which side of the global warming debate you’re on, one thing is for certain; Mother Nature is definitely packing a major punch this winter! Here in New Jersey, the temperatures have remained so low that my neighbor’s snowman that he built way back in December is still standing tall! And while it may have been fun to dream of a white Christmas, we’re now stuck with the dark reality that this stuff is simply not going away anytime soon!
Gone are the days that you could trick some jaded teenager into shoveling your driveway for 20 bucks, so unless you have access to a snow blower or a landscaping crew, you may be due for a lot of hard extra work over the next few months.
As I prepare to dig my car out for what feels like the nine billionth time; I’m reminded of the influx of snow-related injuries that I’ve seen and read about lately. The main cause for these injuries isn’t merely slip and falls as you’re likely to think. Instead, many of these injuries are pulled backs, herniated discs, hyperextended shoulders and many other forms of muscular trauma.
It makes sense actually. With snow now affecting nearly every state except for those lucky enough to live in Hawaii, many of us simply do not have a lot of experience dealing with removing this stuff. Others, however, forget that shoveling large quantities of snow should technically be considered a workout too.
Even if you never set foot inside of a gym, many every day tasks and household chores involve the same cardiovascular and muscular recruitment as even your toughest of workouts! Therefore, it’s just as important to adequately prepare your body for these situations as it would be for you to prepare for a body pump or a spin class.
With that said, here’s how you should approach your next battle with Mother Nature to avoid adding to the ever-growing line of snow related injuries flooding hospitals and physical rehabilitation centers lately.
1. Warm Up!
While I’d obviously recommend coats, boots and a shirt that will breathe, yet not trap cold sweat against your body, I’m not just talking about clothing here; I’m also talking about preparing your muscles for physical activity.
For most of us, the typical snow day when we still have to leave the house usually goes as follows: We wake up, peek through the blinds to witness that our cars have been buried by snow plows, rub our eyes then check again to confirm that we’re awake and didn’t just dream that scenario, we let out a few expletives. Then we throw on some clothes and immediately rush outside to frantically begin scraping our windows and shoveling around our tires.
Instead of simply rushing outside however, I propose that we start taking a few extra minutes to first loosen up our muscles and prepare our bodies for the demands that we’re about to place them under. Walk around the house for a bit, shake out your limbs or even do a few squats first (seriously!) to increase your blood flow and raise the muscle temperature in your arms and legs.
Think about it, on a snowy day would you just start your car and peel off without warming it up first too? If not, then why would you do that to your body?
2. Drink lots of water.
This is something that nearly everyone forgets in the winter. Just because it’s cold outside does not mean that your body still doesn’t need to remain hydrated, especially if you’re performing grueling work such as shoveling large mounds of snow! Water is extremely important for preventing cramping. It’s also the main ingredient in synovial fluid, which is the fluid that lubricates your joints so you’ll want to stay hydrated if you want to stay injury free.
Since it’s already cold outside, you can probably forgo the ice in favor of room temperature water, but no matter how you consume it, make sure that you drink plenty before, during and after prolonged periods of shoveling.
3. Switch arms to prevent muscular imbalances.
If you’re ambidextrous you’re going to love this idea, and if you’re not, now is your chance to try! For anyone that’s lost right now and thinks ‘ambidextrous’ is one of the 13 astrological signs, allow me to explain. Someone who is ambidextrous is capable of using both hands with equal ease, meaning that they would be able to shovel with either their right or left hand providing the dominant role in lifting the snow.
This is extremely important since you’ll want equal distribution of stress to the working muscles on both sides of your body.
If you’ve ever paid very close attention to right handed boxers for example, you might have noticed that their shoulder on that side of the body tends to be slightly larger than their left. This is due in part to the amount of punches thrown from the ride side of their body in comparison to the left side.
The human body is designed to adapt to the demands placed upon it, so if you spend the next three months shoveling with only your right arm bearing the brunt of the effort, expect to have some possible complications in the future. Instead, try and remember to occasionally switch your grip and stance to ensure that both sides of your body are providing equal effort. Move the pile of snow five times using your right arm, then switch to move the pile five times using your left arm.
It may feel awkward at first, but not as awkward as it would be to have to order shirts with one large right sleeve and a medium left!
4. Bend at the knees.
No offense ladies, but you are by far the main violators of this rule! Aside from an extremely short list of specific exercises, you should never bend at the waist to pick up a heavy object, including snow on the end of a shovel.
Instead, you’ll want to drive the tip of the shovel underneath the pile of snow, then bend at your knees and use your entire lower body to bear the load. This will protect your lower back and provide a better leverage point for your rotator cuff as you rise up to toss your snow onto the pile.
5. Breathe and use core.
Continuing with our discussion on proper form and technique, you’ll want to make sure not to hold your breath as you rise up with your shovel. Instead, exhale out of your mouth and try to keep your core tight. We’ve all heard that term “keep your core tight,” but what does it mean exactly? Allow me to explain.
Your core is the grouping of muscles in your abdomen and your lower back. If you’ve ever checked out some old bodybuilding magazines or have worked in a warehouse, you may have noticed that is the area that you’re likely find a weight belt.
Well, the human body also has its own internal ‘weight belt” in the form of the grouping of muscles in that area. To engage them, you’ll want to brace your stomach as though you were about to absorb a punch to that area. Your simultaneous exhale will also help to produce similar results thereby protecting that region and reducing your risk for injuries.
6. Stretch after you’ve finished!
Shoveling snow is hard work, and places a lot of stress on your muscles and tendons. With that said, to avoid unnecessary soreness and long-term injuries, you’ll want to stretch out once you’re done. Since you’re using your body to perform an activity that you don’t do on a regular basis, you’re likely to feel some stiffness and pain for the next several days. To help reduce the severity and duration of this discomfort, spend several minutes stretching your entire body.
Don’t simply shake out your arms and call it a day. Nearly every muscle of your body is involved in shoveling if you’re doing it correctly, so be sure to give every area of your body the proper amount of attention.
It’s also a great idea to remain flexible since snow is usually accompanied by ice – meaning that you might slip and slide a bit at times, and tight muscles are more susceptible to injury than limber ones. Make sure to hold each of your stretches for 10 to 30 seconds. Massage the affected area and use heat in the form of a pad, shower or bath to further ease muscle soreness.
7. Follow up your shoveling with a quality meal.
To help repair muscles and continue to ease soreness, you’ll want to follow up your shoveling with a quality meal. Recent studies have shown that for optimum recovery, a high quality protein shake within 30 minutes of your workout, followed by a balanced meal containing whole foods within 90 minutes is ideal.
While this article focused solely on dealing with snow, many other common chores such as raking leaves, landscaping and various household repairs involving any type of heavy lifting could also be considered a workout. The entire world is essentially one giant gymnasium, so even though you may not see a treadmill or dumbbells, you’ll still need to care for your body in the same way.
We may not ever be able to truly defeat Mother Nature, but if we can remember to apply these basic principles to all of our outdoor activities, we may be able to at least hang in there for a few more rounds.
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Darrell W. Butler is a certified personal trainer with the American Council on Exercise and The National Federation of Professional Trainers. He holds a wide spectrum of coaching and group instructor credentials, and serves as a fitness and nutritional consultant for several radio programs and media publications.